Inside The Father’s Heart
In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, author Philip Yancey tells this story: A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. “I hate you!” she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away [to Detroit]. Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun. The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car – she calls him “Boss” – teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants.
After a year the first signs of illness appear, and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens. One night as she lies awake everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball. God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home. Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, “Dad, mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.” On the bus ride north, she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them? Her thoughts bounce back and forth between her worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. “Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?” She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them.
When the bus finally rolls into the station, she checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re here. She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads “Welcome home!” Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, “Dad, I’m sorry. I know …” He interrupts her. “Hush child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”
The parable of the prodigal son has been called the pearl of the parables. When the Pharisees and scribes, the good community people, complain about the kind of people Jesus is eating with, prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners, Jesus fires off three parables in rapid succession. In the parable of the lost sheep, he tells of a shepherd who lost 1 of his 100 sheep, and searches for it until he finds it, celebrating with his friends. In the parable of the lost coin, he tells of a poor woman who lost one of ten coins, and searches for her lost coin until she finds it, and then celebrates with her friends. And then, to hammer the point home, he tells the parable of the lost son. We call it the parable of the prodigal son. It is probably the best known of Jesus’ parables. It is probably also one of the least understood. The word prodigal doesn’t mean rebellious. It means lavish. So yes, there is a prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in lavish living. But there is also a prodigal father, who showers all of his sons with lavish grace. And there is a second son, an older son, who, it turns out, is just as rebellious as his lavish younger brother, but in a different, maybe more subtle way. So maybe this really isn’t the parable of the prodigal son. Maybe it’s the parable of the prodigal father, and his two rebellious sons.
Look at Vv. 11-12. I don’t know which is more shocking, the son’s request, or the fact that the father granted it. Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey lived in the Middle East for forty years, and has had hundreds of conversations with Middle Eastern residents about this passage. He’s asked them, “Have you ever heard a son ask for his inheritance?” The answer is always the same: an emphatic NEVER! And so he asks, “Could anyone ever make such a request?” An emphatic “IMPOSSIBLE!” is the answer. “Why? What would happen? “HIS FATHER WOULD BEAT HIM, OF COURSE!” “Why?” BECAUSE ASKING FOR THE INHERITANCE MEANS THE SON WANTS THE FATHER TO DIE!” It wasn’t uncommon for the father to divide the inheritance up among his sons before he died. But actually dispersing it? That was unheard of. The oldest got a double portion, and everyone else got an equal amount, when the father died. Not before. The son is saying, “I don’t want anything to do with you. Better that you were dead.” He says “give me my inheritance and let me be done with you.” We aren’t told why. Simply that it happened. In later Jewish tradition, in similar circumstances, when this actually did happen, parents were actually permitted to hold a funeral service for their still living but estranged child. The child became dead to them, just as they were dead to their child. He had forfeited his legal status as a son. His father had no more responsibility for him. Could live as if his son had never existed. The son certainly wanted to live as if his father had never existed. And that is the essence of sin, no matter how it shows up in our lives. At its core, sin is an attitude that says “I don’t need you God. I am father enough to myself.” Isn’t that how the serpent tempted Adam and Eve in the garden? “You will be like God …” At its core, sin is simply the attitude that says, “Forget you. I don’t need you. I’m just fine on myself. I will answer to no one but me. I am my own god.”
But the son doesn’t stop there. He adds insult to injury. Look at Vv. 13-16. His inheritance is slipping through his fingers, and fast. How long did it last? We don’t know. We only know that he came to the end of his resources. He spent it all recklessly. But there’s something I want you to see here. This wasn’t really his money that he was spending. He hadn’t earned it. All that he had, all that he wasted, had come from the father he had turned his back on. From the father he’d said before the world, “I wish you were dead.” Like a spoiled brat, he took his inheritance and stomped off. But instead of making something of it, and himself, he wasted it. He brought great shame upon his father. And then, his money gone, the friends it had bought him no longer there, he turned in desperation to a farmer for help. He was a long way from home. Jesus doesn’t tell us where he went, but it wasn’t in Jewish territory. He emphasizes that it was a “far” country, and what is the farmer raising? Pigs. A Jewish farmer wouldn’t be raising pigs. They were considered unclean. They made their handler unclean. No Jewish farmer would do that. He had wandered far from home, far from the heart of his father. And to survive, he made himself unclean, feeding pigs and trying to survive on what they refused to eat. It doesn’t get much lower than that.
Now, look at Vv. 17-19. He came to his senses. He woke up. He remembered his father’s house. He knew that his father’s slaves lived better than he was now. But he’s not an idiot. He knows what he’s done. He can’t come back home as a son. But even attempting to come back home as a slave is a little presumptuous. He deserved to be shunned. “Fine, you want me dead. You’re dead to me then too. Don’t come back asking for more.” I mean, how would you respond, if this were your son. “I’ve done everything I can for you. Probably too much. I can’t help you anymore.” But the son hopes beyond hope that his father would not welcome him, but allow him to exist on his property as a slave.
Fortunately for him, his father is the real prodigal, the real lavish one, in this story. Look at Vv. 20-24. He’s rehearsed his line. He knows what he’s going to say. He knows how his father should react. “Get off my property!” But maybe, just maybe … But he doesn’t even get close to the house before his father spots him. Why? Because just like the shepherd of the lost sheep and the woman with the lost coin, the father has been keeping an eye out for his lost son. And he recognizes his silhouette on the horizon. And he runs out to meet him. And he embraces him. Literally, the text reads “fell on his neck.” And he kissed him. The verb tense literally reads “kissed him over and over again.” This father is making a fool out of himself over his lost son. And the son, probably shocked, begins his speech. Notice how he starts the speech. Not sir. But “Father …” That’s his only hope. That there’s enough love left in his father’s heart for him to allow him to let his lost son serve him as a slave. He knows who his father is. And he calls him by the name he’s called him since birth. “Father.” In spite of it all, he’s still his father’s son. That’s all he knows how to call him. But the father cuts him off.
Here it comes. The yelling. The screaming. The slap across the cheek. And the order to leave the property. But no. The father turns to a servant and orders him to bring HIS SON a robe, and a ring, and sandals. The robe was a royal robe, worn by special guests of high rank. It was reserved for guests of honor. The ring was his father’s signet ring, bearing his seal, by which he conducted business. And the sandals? Servants went barefoot. But not sons. The son expected to be banished. Hoped to be permitted to stay as a slave. And was welcomed home and restored as a son. With the ring, he could immediately conduct business on his father’s behalf. No probationary period. No earning his father’s trust. It was as if he’d never left. Now that’s amazing grace. But the story doesn’t end here.
Look at Vv. 25-32. The father’s older son is coming in from the field. He’s been responsible. He’s always done what he’s supposed to do. He’s never left his father’s house. He’s always been there. He’s never insulted his father, shamed him, by asking for his inheritance early and then wasting it. He’s obeyed all of the rules. But something is wrong. Something is wrong in his heart. Just as wrong as that which had gone wrong in his younger brother’s heart. He’s on his way in from the field when he hears the sound of a party. It’s the celebration the father is throwing for his younger son. And he grabs a servant and grills him. That’s the sense of the word. Demanding to know what is going on. And the servant tells him. “We’re celebrating!” Why? “Because your brother has returned home!” And the son fumes. Insults his father by refusing to come in. And so the father, now shamed and insulted by both of his sons, goes after this one too. He should have left him out there. “Want to sulk? Want to throw a pity party for yourself? Fine! But don’t presume on my generosity ever again.” Once again, the prodigal father chases a wayward son. But this time, it isn’t the lavish, irresponsible one. It’s the responsible one who has never understood what it means to be a son.
Look closely at V. 29. “I’ve never once disobeyed you. I’ve done my best to protect your reputation. I’ve never brought shame on the family or on you. And you’ve never once thrown a party for me. Not even a small goat for me and my friends.” In spite of his status as a son, he sees himself as a slave. And he’s slaved. He’s worked hard. He’s tried to earn his father’s approval. And he is just as far away from his father’s heart as is his younger brother. He hasn’t served his father in love. He’s served for the reward. There is no real sonship in his soul. And he certainly isn’t going to forgive his brother. “This son of yours …” He might be your son, but he’s not my brother. I won’t welcome him. He doesn’t deserve to be here. And yet, there he was. Welcomed as a son. The invitation was the same to both. Come into my house, son. The younger son knew very well that he didn’t deserve it. And his father gave him no chance to earn it. He simply welcomed him home. The younger son called him father, but didn’t live like a son. The older lived like a son, but didn’t understand what it meant to have a father. He saw himself as a slave. Just keep doing the right things, and my father will reward me. But that isn’t how a father operates. A father loves his children, simply because they are his children. And he pursues them, even when he shouldn’t. That is what the heart of God is like. That’s the reality of the kingdom of God. That’s the reality that Jesus made real. Because he died in our place, we are free to be welcomed as sons and daughters of God, whether we’ve been living it up in a faraway land, wasting all that God has given us, or whether we’ve been in the father’s house all along, but haven’t really understood what it means to be a child of God.
But there’s something interesting about this parable. It doesn’t end. We don’t know how the older son responded. Did he repent and come in to the banquet? Or did he persist in his unwillingness to reconcile with his younger brother, and with his father? Did he accept his position as a son, or continue to live as a slave? Did he begin to reflect his father’s grace-filled, forgiving heart, or persist in bitterness and unforgiveness? Jesus doesn’t tell us, because he invites us to find ourselves in this story. We often think of ourselves as the prodigal, openly rebelling, sowing our wild oats, and then coming back home when the bottom falls out. But Jesus invites us into the parable in the position of the older brother. How will we respond to the Father’s offer of grace, not just to us, but to others? Do our hearts reflect the heart of God? How does the story end, for you?http://https://youtu.be/Q3w72f_nak4?list=PLfzxXM3T38Wjj9lTqLpWun_OGMtTmi2-x